Argus was lying on the couch in his cabin with his head resting on Reya’s lap. She had a hand on his chest while she stroked his head with the other. It was comforting and calming for both of them after a stressful day.
Argus’s injured arm was encased in a stiff healing cast in order to prevent him from moving it too much and reopening the wound. The fingers of his free hand lightly traced the back of hers.
Reya asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Argus said despondently. “What good would it do? It’s not going to bring him back.”
“It won’t but it would help you deal with it.”
Argus sat up. “I don’t want to deal with it.”
Reya sighed. “You just want it to continue hurting. But is it for him or yourself.”
“He deserves someone to pay the price of losing his life.”
“He did it for you, Argus. They're all doing it because of you. That's why they left Athol, their family and friends. They know that you’re doing something good and they wanted a part of it. They also trust you with their lives. For the same reason your men have always trusted you. It’s the same reason why the people on this ship trust you, even Avon.”
The corner of Argus’s eyes crinkled in a pained wince. “But people die around me, Reya. They shouldn’t trust me. I can’t keep them safe…no matter how much I try.” He buried a heavy head in his hands.
Reya drew his head to her chest and stroked his head gently. “I know. It’s because you are like this…that they love you. They would follow you anywhere.”
“I don’t want them to.” Argus’s shoulders began shaking; the silent, tearless expression of a man weighed down by grief and guilt, but who had been trained never to show weakness.
“You can’t fight by yourself, Argus. You cannot face the enemy alone.”
“I can try.”
“It’s not your decision, Argus.”
“I’m the leader.”
“Then it is your job to lead and give their lives purpose. But you do not control their lives. If they are willing to take the risks, that is their decision. It is not your right to deny it. Just as it is not your right to make them take risks they don’t want to. That decision is not yours to make. If you wish to free people from the tyranny of the Federation then you must begin it here. Allow these people the freedom to choose the direction of their lives. That means you must let them choose to take the risks as well as to refuse them.”
“You mean the freedom must be the same?”
Reya rested her head on his. “You know it is but it is in your nature to take responsibility for everything. Even if it was someone else’s decision.”
"I can’t help feeling responsible.” He touched her face gently. "You would make a better leader."
"No. They may respect me but you are the one that they love. You are the one who suffers for them."
"Don't make me sound like some kind of hero, Reya. I'm not. I have too much blood on my hands and there is too much darkness in me. I'm just a flawed man trying to pay the universe back for all the lives I've taken."
Reya tilted his head so that she could look into his troubled eyes. “I love you.”
“You’re very wise.”
A smile lightly played on Reya’s lips and touched her eyes, “Because I love you?”
“No…I mean, you see things I can’t.”
“Only because it's hard for you to be objective about things that touch you personally. Are you going to be alright?”
“I’ll be fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“You mean, like you don’t have to worry about the others?”
Argus smiled wryly.
Reya traced the smile with her fingers. “Can you at least promise me that you won’t keep it bottled inside?”
There was a sombre atmosphere in the packed cargo hold. The Athol soldiers were in full dress uniform of dark green and black. They were lined up on either side, standing guard over their fallen comrade, their heads facing downwards in mourning and rifles in a rest position, with the barrels pointed to the ground.
President Trist and his officials and the Champions were also in attendance.
Argus stood forward. His voice echoed like a rumble of thunder in close confines. “We are here to remember a fallen comrade, Gar Innes. He gave his life because he believed that there are some things worth fighting for. He was instrumental in saving the life of President Trist. And he made valuable contributions on all the missions that we have been involved in. He was solid and dependable. A good soldier and a patient teacher. A man who was always ready to lend a hand when it was needed. He was a man who appreciated good food and lots of it. I understand he was also good cook though we never had the opportunity to enjoy his talents here. I suppose…” There was a slight tremor in his voice. “…we never will.” He recovered quickly. “Innes’s life and his name will not be forgotten. We will finish the work that he helped start. We will defeat the aliens here, in his memory, and then we will bring him home.”
Argus caught Lt. Dain’s eyes. Dain called, “Attention.” The heads of all the soldiers snapped up as one, and they brought their rifles to the front, in a vertical salute.
One of the sergeants put a long instrument to his lips, an Athol musical apparatus that looped around itself. A mournful refrain filled the cargo hold, a solitary sound calling everyone to remembrance. After the echoes of the last note died, they all stood in hushed silence.
After the ceremony, Avon and Cally watched as the others mingled and had refreshments.
Avon thought to her, * Cally, be careful when you go down again. *
Cally projected, * Have you found out more information? *
* There was only limited information on the computer once the encryption was broken. But we know that they are organized here and they are deeply entrenched. We are at a disadvantage if we cannot identify who they are. They could be anyone. Are you able to sense any difference in the alien we captured? *
* Not yet. *
There was no change in expression on Avon’s face as their minds spoke. * I could find no physical difference that we could detect with our current scanners. The duplication appears to be exact while they are in a transformed state. *
* How is that possible? * asked Cally.
* We know their technology is superior to ours but I have some new ideas. Our captured alien will be useful in many ways. *
* Hopefully he’ll be even more useful once we wake him and he can be questioned. I will be careful on the planet but I need you to be careful about your time. Adding one more task to your list is not healthy for you. *
* We will both take care. *
After the remembrance ceremony, there was a subdued debriefing of the previous day’s events and accomplishments. The high spirits had taken on a serious air. The Second Challenge was scheduled for the next day. There was nervous apprehension but also increasing confidence. Everyone spent the rest of the day relaxing.
Reya, Cally, Corinne and Marlena spent some time together. Another tea had been arranged in Reya’s cabin.
Corinne reported, “Some of the women want to stay after the Challenges.”
Marlena said, “That’s good.”
Reya said, “That’s what we were hoping for.”
Cally had noticed the unhappy look on the young woman’s face. “You’re concerned?”
Corinne’s eyes studied the clear surface of the table. “I wish they didn’t have to. It’s not going to be easy for them.”
There was gentle joy on Marlena’s face when she regarded her daughter. “They know the cost, Corinne, but they are willing to pay it.”
“Just like you did, mother?” When Corinne looked at her mother, it was always with awe and pride.
“Sometimes Corinne, what is important is not living or dying but what you chose to live or die for. These women have made a choice, just as I did. I will also be staying here after the Challenges.”
“Mother…” Corinne put her hand on her mother’s arm in alarm.
“It’s alright, Corinne. I will not leave your father again and I want to finish the work I began here.”
“I…should stay with you.”
Marlena patted her daughter’s hand. “You have your own path to follow, Corinne. You have made your choice. You have your own battles to fight.”
Reya said, “We will take care of her, Marlena.”
Marlena smiled in soft appreciation, “I know I’m leaving her in good hands.”
Sester sat thinking in his cabin, his fingers idly touching the half-finished chess game with himself. The death of the soldier was unfortunate but it served a useful purpose. It focused the Chandaran women’s energy. Rather than just elevated spirits that gave them falsely high confidence, they now had a realistic understanding of the stakes.
Since the First Challenge had ended in the optimal solution, it had opened up certain opportunities. They were ones that other people rarely recognized, but someone like him did. Achieving the impossible was what he was good at. Of course, it involved great risks. But they were calculated ones.
He would need the cooperation of two people. And a great deal of secrecy.
Sester went to the door to visit the first of these people, and crashed into Kirsten, who had her hand raised to use his door chime. They both rubbed sore heads that had banged into each other. Sester could feel a bruise growing and saw a corresponding red mark developing on Kirsten’s temple.
Sester said, “We’ve got to stop running into each other like this.”
Kirsten rubbed her head. “You could always wear something that gives off a signal.”
Sester eyed her suspiciously. “How did…what are you doing here, Kirsten?”
“I would have thought that would be obvious. I’m here to see you.”
“Let’s get past the obvious, shall we? What are you doing here? And why?”
Kirsten peered into Sester’s cabin. “Are you going to invite me in?”
For some reason, this woman set him on edge. She had penetrating eyes that seemed to be able to see right through him. Normally being naked with a woman was not a situation that made him uncomfortable. But the feeling of being bare even though he was fully clothed was disconcerting.
This woman made him feel naked just by looking at him. It was not unlike the feeling he had when standing in front of his master. The Guildmaster had always been able to see right through him too. It was never a safe place for a devious and clever person like himself to be in.
Sester said, “If you give me a good reason.”
There was an amused expression on Kirsten’s face. “You did nearly give me a concussion.”
Sester reluctantly moved aside to let her in. He grumbled, “That’s hardly my fault.”
Kirsten smiled. “Don’t you find it interesting that we usually seem to have the same conjunction of actions at the same time?”
“Isn’t that what they call a complete accident?”
She seemed intrigued by his antagonism, “Where were you going?”
Kirsten asked, “You were going somewhere, weren’t you?”
Sester scowled. A ready lie was on his lips but instead he found himself admitting, “I was coming to see you.”
Kirsten gave him a knowing smile.
Sester said with irritation, “You knew?”
“I suspected so after the results of the First Challenge. The timing was coincidental if that makes you feel any better.”
Sester blew out an aggravated breath. “But you knew.”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?” She walked slowly towards him.
Sester stood still as she approached, unwilling to give ground to her. She invaded his space and took another step forward, until he could feel her warm breath on his face and her body lightly brushing against his. Sester could feel the aggression triggering involuntary primal reactions that could easily turn into something else if she made the right or wrong moves.
This was a dangerous game she was playing but he had the impression that she knew what she was doing and had judged it very carefully. However, it couldn’t be. It was not possible that she had that kind of finely honed instinct. That kind of control.
There was one thing that she was showing him though. She loved the danger of human interaction and she liked taking risks.
Kirsten said in a guttural voice, “How else does it make you feel?”
Sester knew that all he had to do was reach out and touch her. Then they would spend the next few hours exploring something that would give them great physical pleasure. He said in low warning, “You’re playing a dangerous game, Kirsten. You should never play with a man like this unless you’re prepared to be burned.” He leaned towards her.
Kirsten stepped back. “You misjudged me. I never play that kind of game.”
Sester looked at her in confusion.
Kirsten backed up again. “I was trying to show how you make other people feel. Your ability to read them makes them feel as if they're naked.”
“How did…” Now he was angry. How did she know how he was feeling? That sense of nakedness was not something that would have shown on his face, not with his control. It would have required a very subtle reading.
"You jumped to the wrong conclusion."
Sester asked, "What are you trying to do, Kirsten?”
Kirsten smiled and ignored his question. “I’m leaving now.” Without another word, she left a confused man behind.
Sester was full of anger but there was still a strong physical desire. He scowled as he realized that Kirsten had left before he had an opportunity to say what he had to say. Now he was forced to go to her. And ask her to do something.